A New Light Tank Is Coming Soon: The U.S. Army has continued to upgrade its M1 Abrams main battle tank, but that won’t be the only tank in its arsenal beginning in early 2024. Earlier this summer, the service announced that General Dynamics Land Systems, or GDLS, has been awarded a $1.14 billion contract to produce and field up to 96 new vehicles, as part of the “Mobile Protected Firepower” program, or MPF.
“While informed by our experience of building a number of innovative ground combat vehicles, the MPF was designed from the ground up as a completely new vehicle,” said Kevin Bonner, global chief technology officer for General Dynamics Land Systems. “From the suspension to the propulsion and electronics, the MPF represents the U.S. Army’s next generation of combat vehicles.”
The lightly-armored land platform will fill a capability gap in infantry brigades for an airborne-capable tracked vehicle that can provide fire-on-the-move capability, Army-Technology reported last month.
Production is already underway.
“The MPF program initiated the Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) phase…in June 2022,” U.S. Army spokesperson Ellen Lovett, told Army Technology, adding that LRIP deliveries were expected to occur in the first quarter of the financial year 2024.
After MPF crews have established logistics and strategic practices, the platform will next be attached to U.S. Army Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, where they will train together to establish a new battlefield role.
“The MPF is a new capability to the IBCTs. It provides IBCTs with mobile, protected direct fire capability to apply lethal and sustained long-range fires to armored vehicles, hardened enemy fortifications and dismounted personnel,” said Lovett.
The MPF is meant to provide infantry brigades greater survivability, while providing the ability to identify threat systems earlier and at greater distances. At the same time, it would not restrict movement in off-road terrain. MPF will allow U.S warfighters to move at a faster pace, protecting the assaulting force.
“MPF represents a new capability for the Army, allowing our light maneuver forces to overmatch adversaries. Through multiple Soldier touchpoints, our Soldiers have operated the prototypes and provided crucial feedback to the design team, ensuring our forces will have the asset they need on the future battlefield,” said Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team.
The MPF is the U.S. Army’s first new-design vehicle fielded in more than forty years. Current plans call for the first unit to be equipped by late fiscal year 2025. AGDLS will deliver 26 vehicles initially, though the contract could be increased with the army acquiring 70 more over the course of low-rate initial production for a total of $1.14 billion. In addition, it is the first major platform to advance from prototyping to production under the U.S. Army Futures Command, Defense News first reported in June.
Established in 2018 as a public-private initiative, Army Futures Command has been tasked with modernizing the U.S. Army.
The Command utilized its competitive prototyping approach to select the light tank design. The process actually began in 2018, and over a period of four years, the U.S. Army tested and evaluated 24 prototypes. The U.S. Army had previously announced that it could spend upwards of $6 billion on the MPF program, including what has already been spent on research & development and prototyping.
The Light Tank MPF Program in the Spotlight
The award for the light tank was made in late June.
“The MPF program did exactly what the Army asked, which was to complete a competitive and accelerated rapid prototyping effort with Soldier touchpoints,” explained Doug Bush, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, and the Army’s acquisition executive. “MPF is a benchmark program, as the acquisition and requirement communities worked together to complete the [middle-tier acquisition rapid-prototyping] phase and move this system into production in just under four years.”
The total lifecycle cost of the program is reportedly $17 billion, which includes sustainment, military construction, and personnel. The Army’s long-term goal is to procure upwards of 504 MPFs by 2035, and those vehicles are expected to remain in its inventory for at least 30 years. However, given that this is the first armored vehicle to enter service in more than four decades, it is likely these light tanks could be ready to roll far longer.
“The US Army’s decision to proceed with the MPF program is a testament to the transformative effect the creation of the Army Futures Command has had on defense procurement,” said Tristan Sauer, land domain analyst at international analytics firm GlobalData, via email.
“The Army’s legacy of procuring new armored vehicles has been checkered at best over the last three decades, but under the AFC’s guidance MPF is now succeeding where other programs such as the Future Combat Systems and Ground Combat Vehicles have failed,” added Sauer. “The capability gap left by the retirement of the M551 Sheridan light tank in 1996 has been a point of contention since the end of the First Gulf War. Now, with the specter of high-intensity conflict with a peer-level adversary looming large over NATO amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the vulnerability of the US Army’s infantry brigade combat teams to hostile armored assets has become ever more pressing.”
The Light Tank program also shows that Army Futures Command’s ability to overcome past procurement challenges and deliver timely modernization has proven beneficial for both the military and the wider defense industry.
“The additional speed and consistency with which such programs have been completed in recent years continue to foster additional confidence and efficiency throughout the procurement process,” suggested Sauer. “Indeed, the MPF program has advanced from prototyping to an LRIP contract worth $1.14 billion in the span of four years, an impressive feat by armored vehicle procurement standards.”
A Light Tank is Still a Tank
The MPF prototype highlights that it will pack a punch. It integrates a 105mm cannon alongside the Fire Control System from the GDLS’s combat-proven M1A2 Abrams tank with their proprietary Griffin II chassis. This could enable the Army to fill a key capability gap, as well as maintain strategic overmatch by using advanced yet relatively cost-effective commercial off-the-shelf technology.
“The Army expects to spend an estimated $6 billion to acquire 504 vehicles between 2022-35, a further sign of the mutual confidence borne out of the pragmatic and effective modernization efforts spearheaded by the AFC,” said Sauer.
“Following the success of MPF and other recent land domain modernization efforts (such as the Army’s Modular Handgun System, Next Generation Squad Weapon and Personal Defense Weapon programs), there may be reason for cautious optimism regarding the outcome of the long-troubled Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle program,” he continued. “At a projected total procurement cost of $46 billion, it could prove to be the most financially significant military armored vehicle program of the next decade.”
Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.